Karma Yoga

This blog post is written by Eric Smith, a Dharma student in Calgary. He shares his synopsis of Doug Duncan Sensei’s Nov 23, 2015 talk in Calgary, Karma Yoga, the Path for the Western Mind.

I would like to begin by saying thank you in appreciation for the immense generosity of our teacher Doug Duncan Sensei, who gave an incredible class at the Dharma Hub last week on “Karma Yoga: The Path for the Western Mind”.

First of all you might be wondering, “What the heck is Karma Yoga? and just what “path” are we talking about? where is it going?”.  I know that’s what I thought when I first heard about it so I’ll elaborate a bit on this to start. The word “Karma” means “activity” or “action” and “Yoga” means “union”. The word “path” indicates we are headed somewhere and to be very specific, we are talking about the path to awakening. Uh oh.. Now I’ve done it… What is awakening you ask?? Awakening can be describe as a state of spacious, clear, blissful, non-clinging awareness… we’ll leave it at that for now.

In short, Karma Yoga can be defined as “meditation in action”, “union through action” or “awakening in action” and so on… Translation: “Karma Yoga: The Path for the Western Mind” means “Meditation in action: The Path to Awakening for the Western Mind”. I’ll assume here that all of us born and living in the west can agree that we have been shaped by our cultural conditions and therefore fit the category of “western mind”. As Sensei puts it, “Westerners are doers!”. We live busy busy lives building careers, making money, paying bills, cultivating relationships, raising kids, etc, etc, we are always on the go.

Historical paths to liberation: Yogic or Monastic

MilarepaSensei talked about a number of other paths and practices that historically have been used to gain contact with the awakened state. One example, the “Yogic Path” or ”Guru Yoga” is the path of studying closely with a teacher away from the world for an extended period of time.  Another option, the “Monastic Path” is spent living in a monastery. In this model the institution replaces the teacher, so a lot more students can train at once. You move in and spend your life there.

The problem today is that the path is a choice and so far, both the yogic and monastic options are not very appealing to your average westerner. How many of us want to give up our worldly lives, leaving it all behind to spend our lives in the mountains with a guru or in a monastery? How many of us want to spend months on end sitting in meditation for 18+ hours a day? *crickets chirping*… Yeah… and anyone out there who thinks they’ve had enough of their busy lives and they want to run away from it all to live the spiritual life in solitude will likely have a change of heart rather quickly if they do… For the western mind it is a HUGE leap to jump from your life in the city with a career, school, money, friends, cars, sex, kids, husband, wife… to sitting in meditation all day for months at a time. It would be a massive shock to the system.

Older cultures like the Tibetans for example, had much slower lives. If you raised live stock, you got up in the morning, sat out and watched the animals, maybe fed them, had some tea, ate some food, had a nap, watched the animals, ate dinner, went to bed, got up, watched the animals…. you get the point. Going from that life, to sitting and watching the mind in meditation in the monastery, rather than the animals on the grasslands isn’t going to be nearly as drastic. For the western mind, Doug Sensei proposed that meditation in action is the ideal transition to make.

Bringing the path into daily life

Karma yoga at Clear Sky FarmSo how do we bring the path of awakening to our everyday lives? Well the truth is, we need training. We need training on how to bring spacious, blissful, non-clinging awareness into our hectic and busy lives. Awakening is tied to a training not a fixed model which is why there is more than one path to get there and the path to awakening is just like the path to developing any other specialized skill. It takes a long period of dedicated practice and discipline.  Behavioral scientists tell us that developing mastery over something takes 10,000 hours of applied focus. Through Karma Yoga training we are talking about getting those 10,000 hours of training the mind toward awakening in situ in our everyday lives.

The purpose of karma yoga training is to transform your motivation in your work and in all your actions to be of service to others rather than me me me me which is what we’re thinking about 99% of the time. Can you imagine the difference in a world where businesses were operating from a place of truly being of service to others and to the planet? That would be a huge shift from the way we are operating as a species currently and that is the shift that needs to happen.

Calgary Dharma Class with Doug DuncanAs a practitioner of Karma Yoga, I remember feeling resistance to taking on tasks that I felt I had little or no experience in and thus felt a lack of confidence in doing. Through the process of challenging myself to take on this work, motivated by being of service to a group or something bigger than myself, I was able to gain contact with greater spaciousness and freedom. I identified that part of myself that actually unconsciously sabotages other important areas of my life such as my career as a musician and an artist. This is the “perfectionist” in me that self-sabotages by shying away from doing anything new or uncomfortable because I think, “Oh I probably won’t be any good at this so I’ll just not bother. I’d rather just not try than potentially embarrass myself by messing up or doing something wrong“. Obviously the fact is that “perfection” is just a human construct, an unrealistic ideal and in truth the learning process never ends. Even the master never ceases to learn which is what makes him or her a true master. Through the help of my teachers, community and dedicated training relationships, I’m able to slowly break through my blind spots of protectionism / fear,  re-discovering spacious, clear, blissful, non-clinging awareness.

Doug Duncan Sensei and his partner/co-teacher Catherine Pawasarat believe humanity is entering a period that requires a new model of awakening training. The future is the integration of spiritual training in the workplace, in the community, in social ventures. (I emphasize the word training here because it is the most important part and also the biggest hurdle – unconscious habits run deep, and it takes dedication to change these). This is the “awakening together in action” model and as far as I can see this is an ideal and exciting path if we are committed to creating positive, long term and sustainable change for ourselves as individuals and for the planet.

Doug Duncan and Catherine Pawasarat

This blog post was written by Eric Smith, originally published on the Dharma Hub Calgary website.